Brussels by no means ends at the petit ring. King Léopold II pushed the city limits out beyond the course of the old walls, grabbing land from the surrounding communes to create the irregular boundaries that survive today. To the east, he sequestered a rough rectangle of land across which he ploughed two wide boulevards to link the city centre with Le Cinquantenaire, a self-glorifying and markedly grandiose monument erected to celebrate the golden jubilee of Belgian independence, and one that now houses three sprawling museums, two specialists and the more general Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire. There’s no disputing the grandness of Léopold’s design, but in recent decades it has been overlaid with the uncompromising office blocks of the EU. These high-rises coalesce hereabouts to form the loosely defined EU quarter, not a particularly enjoyable area to explore, though the strikingly flashy European Parliament building is of passing interest, especially as it is just footsteps from the fascinating – and fascinatingly eccentric – paintings of the Musée Antoine Wiertz. If, however, you’ve an insatiable appetite for the monuments of Léopold, then you should venture further east to Tervuren, where the king built the massive Musée Royal de L’Afrique Centrale on the edge of the woods of the Forêt de Soignes.
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The EU in Brussels
The EU in Brussels
The three main institutions of the European Union operate mainly, though not exclusively, from Brussels. The European Parliament carries out its committee work and the majority of its business in Brussels, heading off for Strasbourg for around twelve, three-day plenary sessions per year. It’s the only EU institution to meet and debate in public, and has been directly elected since 1979. There are currently 736 MEPs, and they sit in political blocks rather than national delegations; members are very restricted on speaking time, and debates tend to be well-mannered consensual affairs, controlled by the President, who is elected for a five-year period by Parliament itself – although this mandate is often split in two and shared by the two biggest political groups. The Conference of Presidents – the President of the Parliament and Leaders of all the political groups – meet to plan future parliamentary business. Supporting and advising this political edifice is a complex network of committees from agriculture to human rights.
The European Council consists of the heads of government of each of the member states and the President of the European Commission; they meet twice every six months in the much-publicized “European Summits”. However, in between these meetings, ministers responsible for different issues meet in the Council of the European Union, the main decision-making structure alongside the European Parliament. There are complex rules regarding decision-making: some subjects require only a simple majority, others need unanimous support, some can be decided by the Council alone, others need the agreement of Parliament. This political structure is underpinned by scores of Brussels-based committees and working parties, made up of both civil servants and political appointees.
The European Commission acts as the EU’s executive arm and board of control, managing funds and monitoring all manner of agreements. The 27 Commissioners are political appointees, nominated by their home countries, but their tenure has to be agreed by the European Parliament and they remain accountable to the MEPs. The president of the Commission is elected by the European Parliament for a five-year period of office. Over twenty thousand civil servants work for the Commission, whose headquarters are in Brussels, mainly in the Berlaymont and adjacent Charlemagne building on rue de la Loi as well as other buildings in the Schuman area.